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Vladimir Nabokov 1899–-1977

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(Full name Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov; also wrote under the pseudonym V. Sirin) Russian-born American novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright, critic, translator, biographer, autobiographer, and scriptwriter. See also Vladimir Nabokov Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 11.

Nabokov is widely recognized as one of the outstanding literary stylists of the twentieth century. His intricate, self-conscious fiction often investigates the illusory nature of reality and the artist's relationship to his craft. Nabokov maintained that “art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex”; by emphasizing stylistic considerations above notions of moral or social significance, he championed the primacy of the imagination, through which he believed a more meaningful reality might be perceived. Viewing words as significant objects as well as vehicles for meaning, Nabokov made use of intellectual games involving wordplay, acrostics, anagrams, and multilingual puns to create complex narratives. Although some critics have faulted Nabokov for his refusal to address social and political issues, many have maintained that beneath his passion for “composing riddles with elegant solutions,” as he himself once stated, Nabokov's fiction conveys a poignant regard for human feelings and morality.

Biographical Information

Nabokov was born into an old, aristocratic family in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, one of the founders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, instilled in the Nabokov children the importance of education and liberal thinking. Doted on by his parents, and bequeathed a huge fortune in his teen years by a devoted uncle, Nabokov enjoyed a childhood of love and privilege, during which his intellectual, linguistic, and emotional sensitivities were cultivated, first in his home by his parents and tutors, and then at a progressively liberal, aggressively democratic school. The Russian Revolution of 1917, however, stripped him of his fortune and his homeland when the Nabokovs were forced to flee the country, ultimately settling in London. Nabokov began studying Russian and French literature at Cambridge University on a scholorship awarded for “political tribulation.” After graduating in 1922, Nabokov traveled to Berlin to work with his father on a Russian refugee newspaper. That year his father was killed in a politcal rally of Russian exiles while trying to shield the lecturer from right-wing assassins. The murder deeply affected Nabokov, and elements of the experience would recur throughout his writing. He remained in Berlin for several years, marrying Vera Slonim in 1925 and writing poetry, fiction, and translations to earn a living. His wife's Jewish ancestry necessitated their relocation to France in 1937 and to the United States in 1940 to escape Nazi persecution. Nabokov became an American citizen in 1945. In 1948, Nabokov accepted a post at Cornell University as a professor of Russian literature. During his tenure there, he wrote Lolita (1955), the work that brought him notoriety and popular success as a novelist and allowed him to concentrate soley on his writing career until his death in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1977.

Major Works

Nabokov's novels written in Russian, many of them under the pseudonym V. Sirin, are generally regarded as more autobiographical and less significant than his works in English. In these novels, Nabokov focused on alienated and compulsive protagonists whose complex aesthetic imaginations and quests for self-knowledge render them social misfits. The chessmaster in Zashchita Luzhina (1930; The Defense ), for example, strives to discover his indentity through chess but loses interest in his wife and family as the game becomes an obsession. After removing himself from society and losing his sanity, Luzhin commits suicide; his last glimpse of the...

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